Monday 2 April 2018

See below for the evidence we submiited to the EFRA Inquiry into the work of the Rural Payments Agency.

The Foundation for Common Land is a registered charity that seeks to enhance and conserve for the benefit of the public the cultural and natural heritage of common land and pastoral commoning. We watch carefully the performance of the Rural Payments Agency as commoning, as a farming system, relies substantially on the payments made by the RPA to secure the continued flow of public goods and services from common land.

We work closely with the Rural Payments Agency and value our effective working relationship with Paul Caldwell and his staff. Since November 2016 we have seen a transformation in the service provided to those claiming on common land. We know the staff care but despite this we remain concerned that the system of SitiAgri is unable to function sufficiently well on commons and that the all too often gargantuan evidence requirements for Pillar 2 schemes act as a major disincentive and even obstacle to the delivery of public goods. This affects both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 payments.

We have four specific concerns we would like to draw to your attention.

New Forest BPS: The RPA has been unable to make time to allocate a window to run SitiAgri to allocate areas for the New Forest Commons. It is a substantial task as each of the >500 parcels requires dividing by all 265 claimants but better planning could have predicted this problem as it is a repeat of 2015 and 2016. This has meant none of the claimants in the New Forest have yet been paid. Now the RPA say they will make bridging payments if New Forest BPS has not been paid by the end of March. In future we recommend that the RPA acknowledge that the system cannot cope and make such bridging payments in early February for all commoners where the system does not allow an allocation

Maps – Inability to View: It is not possible to view a map of your common when you log into the Rural Payments Service. This will become an increasing problem in 2018 for two reasons:

(i)                   Many commons Pillar 2 schemes are expiring and unlike Environmental Stewardship, which used an NE mapping system, Countryside Stewardship uses the SitiAgri system. It is essential commoners and their advisors can check the maps to make proper applications.

(ii)                 In 2018 the RPA are completing a check of the eligibility of all common land. Their pilot in 2017 resulted in a reduction in eligible land of an average of 14%.   We are concerned that commoners will not be able to review the RPA assessments that could have a material impact on their eligible area.

It is therefore essential that the RPA find a fix to allow commoners to view maps of their commons. If this cannot be achieved through Siti-Agri then downloadable pdf documents might be an alternative.

Minchinhampton Back Payments: The Government accepted in 2015 that they adopted an incorrect approach for determining the allocation of common land for each commoner. Back payments have been made for most commoners to compensate them for loss of income under SPS. What has not yet happened is for commoners to receive compensation for lost income under BPS for 2015, 2016 or 2017. This requires the commoners to be allocated entitlements for their extra “land”. Applications for 2018 have now opened and claimants remain in the dark as to the number of entitlements they should have.

Information as to how Payments are calculated: The RPA still does not inform claimants how their BPS is calculated for common land. While they publish the area of each CL unit on line, and the Livestock Units claimed it is difficult to determine the actual allocation of area with any certainty particularly when common rights are split across more than one common.

While we appreciate BPS will not be here for ever we could be struggling with this system for another five years.  It is therefore important the above points are addressed to ensure the payments to commoners are made promptly and properly to best serve the public interest. And with regard Pillar 2 schemes we make a plea that a proportionate approach is adopted to evidence requirements particularly given the unique governance arrangements of Commons Associations as umbrella claimants rather than trading businesses.